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Feb-03-2008 20:30printcomments

Is Social Work Still Salient?

Social workers contribute greatly to the field of euthenics, an ancient Greek word meaning improvement of social conditions all about us.

Social worker walking tightrope art
Image courtesy: The National Association of Social Workers-Maryland

(SALEM, Ore.) - Every March marks National Social Work Month across the USA. I have been an active member of this profession since 1974--some 34 years. Yet I continue to be bothered by the phrase itself. Does "social worker" best describe what we are all about? Just what is our mission in society itself?

In the public's mind, our trade is all about helping the "less fortunate". That very often puts us in the box of being soldiers for the "underclass". This usually is shorthand for assisting the poor in society, largely perceived of as ethnic minorities. But this is oversimplification.

The "social" in social work implies outreach to society at large. In our modern age, almost every family has one or more dysfunctional member, whether poor or rich or in between. We call the most conspicuous one the "identified client". Yet finding clearly illustrate that all family members share a piece of the problem. Finger-pointing seldom is a solution.

Every social disruption in one family has a ripple effect on others. We know for a fact that what happens to a kid at home can impact an entire classroom in that kid's behavior.

We are less attuned to the probability that a stressful marriage or parenting situation can send shock waves into the workplace as a secondary result.

Then too, public mental health clinics and hospitals absorb the fallout when stress and trauma are present. The growing cost of therapies and medications are by-products. And even when our consumers are middle-class and taxpayers are not tapped, there are clear consequences. For every high blood pressure dollar spent, for example, that very same dollar is being diverted from some other part of our economy where it might do more good.

Let's look at a few words related to the Social Worker's actual target. We ameliorate social systems. We augment and upgrade the status quo. And we contribute greatly to the field of euthenics, an ancient Greek word meaning improvement of social conditions all about us. I happen to like all three words.

The next time you encounter a Social Worker, call that person an "ameliorator" or a "euthenicist" and notice the surprised look you receive. You'll be helping to enrich our language, and perhaps giving a more apt description to those folks who are committed to helping us attain a better planet than the one we all inherited.


Note: Mr. Coyne is former secretary of the Oregon Chapter, National Assn. of Social Workers, and earlier was part of the Metro DC and NM chapters. His specialties are pain management and family trauma. He currently lives in Salemtowne, Oregon.




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Neal Feldman February 4, 2008 2:36 pm (Pacific time)

Henry Ruark - Please note in my comment "...most of the good ones in senior and disabled services, housing, tanf, OHP, food stamps etc." This seems to mirror your own experience does it not? Just saying our experiences seem to mesh well. I, too, found the best social workers to be in the senior and disabled services - a category I would include those you mentioned in. Ah well...


Henry Ruark February 4, 2008 6:18 am (Pacific time)

Friend Neal: Wisely, you speak from your own experience, surely in good faith but shaped by your own very special personal situation nevertheless. How could it possibly be otherwise ? From the same base, with extensive contact for more than six years, under very heavy strain of home care for a wife dying of colon problems and demanding extremely difficult tube-feeding and other needs as Altheimer's took over more and more completely, I can only say we would never have made it as a family without social worker and several other varieties of helpful care from every social agency we could find. Thus I have a different level and kind of experience to report, with some special circumstances prior to the illness also involved. Despite heavy stress and economic impacts, and with increasing physical aging difficultis of mine own, we found every single one of those we encounted as seeking first and foremost the best possible situation they could conjure for us --with little or no "career" or "agenda" interference with their professional responsibilities. Thus, for us, those three words featured in this careful account from author Coyne ring very true. I can only hope for others that the experience they will encounter reflects the deep professional concern and skill we were fortunate enough to find in our desperate need.


Neal Feldman February 3, 2008 8:46 pm (Pacific time)

In my experience social workers can be very good or very bad with little grey area in between. The main factor I've seen to differentiate them is the good ones are seeking to help where the bad ones are pushing an agenda (their own or that of the agency) or are just on a personal power trip. Most of the bad ones seem to be in Gestapo CPS... most of the good ones in senior and disabled services, housing, tanf, OHP, food stamps etc. Some even try and act as counselors but personally I would never use one since unless you are working with (directly, not just as a general supervisor) a MD or PhD (psychiatrist or psychoanalyst) there is no doctor-patient privilege. Anyone can get your entire file by asking if the office is compliant or simply with a subpoena. As such you cannot comfortably open up since anything you say might come back to bite you. The most annoying thing is that I've never heard of a social worker counselor warning a would be client of this fact and in fact have had several argue with me until I produced the case law proving my point. Thhey seem more interested in the business they would lose than in the best interests of the people coming to see them. And I think that speaks volumes. Ah well...

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